Joe Burrow’s most impossible task dropped on his doorstep almost a week ago: an unassembled package of tripods, of iPads, of wires.
Boredom isn’t a terrible state of mind when you’re 23 years old, when you’re stuck in quarantine with your parents, when the NFL ships a technological puzzle straight to your home; but not even boredom could help the league’s presumptive No. 1 draft pick build the broadcast equipment that will be used on the night that will change his life.
In lieu of Las Vegas — its draft-day Bellagio fountain boat and various Vegas vogue — the NFL sent build-it-yourself cameras to 58 draft prospects, who, like Burrow, are all hunkered down while the socially distant nation is still knee-deep in the coronavirus pandemic.
And so it came to pass that for two hours on an April evening, Burrow’s mother, Robin, assembled the broadcast equipment while a Heisman Trophy winner and his father, Jimmy, a retired college football coach, watched while helplessly holding the directions.
“Burrow men aren’t very tech savvy or handy,” said Joe’s older brother, Jamie.
Jamie said his most recent phone call with his celebrity sibling was relatively normal, filled with “brother stuff,” treading on the momentous present only when Jamie asked what it was like living with his parents back in Athens, Ohio.
“About the way you think it would be,” Joe replied.
Jamie cackled. He knew what it was like to rattle restlessly in a house he thought he’d left behind. A linebacker at Nebraska from 1998-2001, Jamie returned home after he was cut by the New York Jets in preseason camp in 2002; but he’d still had certain freedoms without restrictive government shelter-in-place orders.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine issued one of the most constraining orders on March 22, which was extended until at least May 1, and bans nearly all public and private gatherings.
Burrow’s family, close friends and coaches all say this sort of lifestyle suits the former LSU quarterback, whose reclusive stories of taking only online classes and visiting the casino are part of his legend in Baton Rouge.
No, Burrow can’t sit down with his friends at his favorite diners in The Plains; but he can hole up in his bedroom, watch old game film and discuss documentaries like Netflix’s Dirty Money with his buddies.
“That guy is built for it,” said Zacciah Saltzman, Burrow’s close friend and teammate at Athens High. “That guy’s like a hermit, basically.”
On Sunday night, with the broadcast equipment set up in the living room, Burrow and his father watched ESPN’s documentary “The Last Dance” on the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls.
Aside from learning that Michael Jordan and Joe Burrow favored the same drink — orange juice and 7UP — it seemed like a story on how a high-draft pick rose a lowly franchise to greatness was perfect conversation fodder for what Burrow is about to experience.
The troubled Cincinnati Bengals will all but certainly select Burrow with the No. 1 overall pick in Thursday night’s draft.
The coaching staff praised the former Tiger in Mobile, Alabama, even though Burrow didn’t attend the Senior Bowl in January. The franchise’s social media team posted a celebratory draft week tweet Monday with a picture of SpongeBob SquarePants, one of Burrow’s favorite cartoons. (The tweet was later deleted).
Still, analyzing the future and its implications isn’t really the Burrow way. According to Jimmy, there hasn’t been the kind of father-son talk you might expect.
“We don’t have deep, deep discussions very much,” Jimmy said.
No, to the Burrows, speculation is a lot like putting together broadcast equipment on an April evening. They’d rather sit that one out.
Jamie’s summation: “The journey is more important than the destination.”
“Every week, you’d watch (Joe Burrow) and be like, ‘OK, this is going to be the week he’s going to dip.’ And it doesn’t. ‘Ehh, maybe it’s this week.’ And then he doesn’t. And he plays better and better and better.” — Brian Callahan, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator
Anyone who has seen Joe Burrow play — who has been dazzled by a third-and-17 throw against Texas, who has been baffled by a 70-yard pass thrown on the sideline against Georgia, who has shed tears while Burrow choked back his own during a speech in Manhattan — knows the quarterback has a sense of the moment.
Even if Burrow doesn’t speak of it, even if he plays it down, there is little question that somewhere within his uncanny synapses is a sense of the enormous journey he’s beginning.
Put aside the draft-day conspiracy theories for a moment.
Let’s presume the Bengals do indeed draft Burrow, an idea in which Saltzman is in good company saying “Cincinnati would be crazy to do anything else.”
Burrow would become the 25th quarterback in the Super Bowl era to be drafted No. 1 overall. He’d be the third straight Heisman-winning signal-caller to be selected with the top pick, following Kyler Murray (Arizona Cardinals) and Baker Mayfield (Cleveland Browns), and he’d be the fifth quarterback taken in the last six drafts.
It is perhaps the most well-known narrative in professional football: NFL franchise, crushed by last year’s immense number of losses, invests in star quarterback to vault the team to glory.
The actual results are average. The 24 quarterbacks selected No. 1 have combined to win 54.05% of their career starts — a statistic that includes heavy outliers like Peyton Manning (70.19%), Terry Bradshaw (67.72%) and John Elway (64.29%).
You know the ones considered busts.
Tim Couch went 22-37 in five seasons with the Cleveland Browns. David Carr went 23-53 in five seasons with the Houston Texans. Former LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell went 7-18 in three seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
They each succumbed to a common truth: Their franchises were bad before they arrived and they remained bad afterward.
Facts are, even the top-picked quarterbacks who had better careers struggled in the beginning. All 24 players combined to win 32.12% of their starts as a rookie.
Troy Aikman slogged through a 0-11 record as a starter in 1989 before winning three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. Jared Goff went 0-7 as a starter in 2016 before he led the Los Angeles Rams to the Super Bowl in 2018. Peyton Manning, a two-time Super Bowl champion, threw an NFL-record 28 interceptions in 1998.
Burrow seems to understand this. The future rookie, who attended the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux last summer, called Manning last week for advice.
Burrow will have to prepare for the uncomfortable. But the Ohio State graduate transfer who endured a rigorous LSU season in 2018 knows a little of what that’s like.
“We react a lot better to challenge, struggle and people telling us that we can’t than if everything’s going good and everyone’s praising us,” Jamie said. “That’s kind of uncharted territory and uncomfortable.”
“I think Joe has had to fight all his life, and I think that if he does have to fight, and it may be Cincinnati, he’s willing to fight for that. He’s willing to build a team and willing to go through adversity if he has to. Nothing was promised to him here. He came here with faith and built a championship team, and I don’t see why he couldn’t do it at Cincinnati.” — LSU coach Ed Orgeron
Back in 1980, back in Montreal, back on nights with stories only told off-the-record, Fred Biletnikoff found himself among friends.
The Super Bowl-winning wide receiver had just finished his 14-year Hall of Fame career with the Oakland Raiders. But why not pursue more football? Why not tread beyond the northern border of the good ole U.S. of A. and play in a city where you’d never normally live?
That’s how Biletnikoff entered his final professional season with the Montreal Alouettes in the Canadian Football League, touring a foreign land with a veteran defensive back named Jimmy Burrow.
Oh, Jimmy “was an old throwback guy,” Biletnikoff, 77, said from his home in Sacramento, California. Jimmy’s smart play reminded him of safeties like LSU’s Johnny Robinson and the defensive backs he faced on the San Diego Chargers.
Biletnikoff found all his Montreal teammates were tough, hard-nosed players who appreciated football like the guys he played with in Oakland — teammates like his long-time friend, the late and legendary Billy Cannon.
How could he know that Jimmy’s son would one day become the only other LSU player to win the Heisman Trophy other than Cannon? How could he imagine that this man’s son would throw passes to a wide receiver, Ja’Marr Chase, who would win an award called the Biletnikoff?
He now knows what he and Cannon experienced can help Jimmy’s son, Joe Burrow, who clearly already has the talent to succeed in the NFL. The problems come if his patience drowns in the powerful waves of unseen adversity that inevitably crash.
“If you can’t critique yourself, then you’re going to have a big, big problem your entire career,” Biletnikoff said. “You may not get open. You may drop a ball. You may make a great play. Or you may just make a mediocre play. But if it doesn’t turn out that way, you’ve got to get your a** back in the huddle again and get right back out there.”
The pressure is different for those selected No. 1 overall.
There’s anticipated glory from fan bases. Signing a huge contract, the franchise expects a return on their investment. When Cannon signed with the AFL’s Houston Oilers in 1959, he was the first player to sign a $100,000 contract — a total that pales in comparison to the multi-millions Burrow will receive.
“They expect you to be kind of a hero,” Cannon’s daughter, Bunnie, said.
Cannon still faced criticism during his decorated career. A three-time AFL champion with the Oilers and Raiders, Cannon was both an All-Pro running back and tight end. He endured a back injury in his third pro season, and he played on after dropping a sure-fire touchdown pass in Super Bowl II.
Cannon succeeded by competing intensely, Biletnikoff said. Bunnie said her father was never more intense about something in his life than football. And he held teammates accountable.
“Billy Cannon was great to wising me up,” Biletnikoff said.
Bunnie recalled a story where her father once kept Biletnikoff and Raiders quarterback Cotton Davidson after practice and drilled the same play for two hours.
Yes, a story like this in the pros, where we’re talkin’ ’bout practice.
“Yeah, you didn’t f*** around with Billy,” Biletnikoff said. “Let me put it that way, OK? When Billy said something to you, you listened.”
Bunnie and her mother, Dot, see so much Billy Cannon in Burrow. So much so, Dot insisted to meet Burrow before the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
All the tools are there for success.
The talent. The mindset. The health, Bunnie prays.
“So, to put it plain: just don’t f*** it up,” Biletnikoff said. “That’s all. That simple. Don’t f*** it up.”
“Me and Joe, we love our cities, we love our state. … Being able to get to the pro team in Ohio? That means a lot.” — Malik Harrison, Ohio State linebacker
On a sunny day in Athens, Nathan White stretched out in a lawn chair and found himself basking in delight.
Self-quarantined, neighbors spoke to each other from across their lawns. White, Burrow’s coach at Athens High, noticed the topic always somehow drifted back to the NFL draft.
The hometown kid won the Heisman. He won the national championship. Athens will name its football stadium after Burrow.
And, soon, there will be one more are-you-kidding-me moment.
“Man,” White said slowly, almost in disbelief. “He’s going to be the first pick in the NFL draft.”
There’s talk of fireworks when Burrow gets picked, White said. Some people are thinking about turning their lights on at the same time.
They’ll celebrate somehow.
Even in a pandemic. Even in lockdown. A franchise’s hope renews the hope in his hometown.
“The story just continues to get almost more unbelievable,” White said.
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